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Doubling Down on Stupid

Doubling Down on Stupid

5th Armor Brigade, 1st Army Division West
Fort Bliss, Texas

During a recent trip to Acadia National Park in Maine, I learned a few valuable lessons: I am not as smart as I thought I was, and following established rules and policies protects me from harm. These lessons, although embarrassing, later saved me from greater harm in a different national park and may have prevented a tragic accident in my unit a few weeks later.

Acadia National Park is pristine northern woodland interspersed with majestic mountain peaks, clear lakes, vibrant streams and life-filled ponds located on the craggy coast of Maine. The park is crisscrossed with both carriage and hiking trials. Mountain bikers are advised to stay on the carriage trails. I, however, decided to disregard this policy and, instead, chose to ride my bike along a hiking trail that traced its way around a small lake called Jordan Pond. I thought I knew better than the rangers who ran the park and assumed that if the hiking trails got too rough, I could just walk my bike across those spots.

I had arrived very early that day when few visitors were in the park. The path I chose began as a well-maintained gravel trail. In fact, it was wider than most of the trails I normally ride. Yet, in just a few hundred yards, the path changed from a gravel trail to over-elevated wooden rails no wider than a foot across. These raised rails protected the delicate environment around Jordan Pond from the impact of thousands of visitors’ feet.

Even though I could have easily returned to my starting point, I decided my judgment was better than the rules outlined by the park rangers. Hence, I decided to carefully push my bike along the pathway as I tiptoed across the narrow boards. This worked for a while. However, the raised rails eventually ended as the trail traversed a slide of massive granite boulders, which progressed from a rocky mountaintop all the way down to the lake’s edge. At this point, I could no longer push my bike; I had to carry it on my back through jagged rocks.

By now, I fully regretted my decision to ignore the rangers’ advice and began to look for a way out. I could not backtrack along the trail because several groups of hikers had started along the path. I knew that when we intersected, some of us would be forced to step off the raised rails and risk destroying the fragile habitat around the lake.

Still looking for a way out, I spotted a well-maintained carriage trail about a 100 yards above me that also traversed the slide. Since the rock slide itself was more than a half-mile wide, I figured that if I climbed a small distance uphill to the carriage trail, I would save myself the greater difficulty of traversing the entire slide area along the lake’s edge.

As logical as this plan seemed originally, the execution of the idea proved to be doubling down on stupid. Climbing up a bouldering slope with a mountain bike proved to be an exercise in futility. Even though I could maneuver my 40-pound metal bike over rocks by carrying it high above me, I found the slope becoming steeper as I painfully progressed up the mountain.

Finally, by winding, climbing and lifting my way around obstacles, I managed to get within 10 yards of the carriage trail. It had taken me an hour to climb these 90 yards. During this time, several groups of people had passed by me on the carriage trail above. Each group had given me a look of concern while asking if I needed help.

I told them that, regretfully, I had made a bad decision and they could not help. The 10 yards of mountain between me and the carriage road had become exceedingly steep and their help would not enable me to cross the divide.

After resting on a ledge of a boulder for several minutes and enduring the embarrassment of admitting to several groups of onlookers how stupid I had been, I began the struggle down the rock slide with my mountain bike. Ironically, going down the mountain was twice as hard as going up. Several times I risked injury or death lowering the bike down obstacles that had been fairly easy to lift it over. In the end, I was lucky to make it back down with my bike intact and only a few scrapes and cuts. I then had to traverse the half-mile of boulders I had attempted to avoid originally before I finally arrived at salvation — a flat, well-maintained carriage road.

A few weeks later while in Colorado, I faced another dilemma. While backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park, I had spent one morning hiking from one campground to another higher on the mountain. About noon, I reached my destination and set up camp. With the day still young, I wanted to take a hike up to a mountain lake well above the timber line. Then I remembered the advice given to me by the park rangers that gave me my backcountry pass: Don’t hike above the timberline after 1 p.m. Dangerous thunderstorms almost always hit the mountain during this time period.

Again, my initial thought was that I knew better. I had prepared for rain and snow by packing good wet-weather gear. It was then that I remembered my embarrassing experience in Maine. The first thought I had before ignoring the Acadia Park rules was, “I know better.” I had been overconfident that my personal ability would overcome natural obstacles there, so this time I listened. I gave heed to the park rangers’ advice and stayed below the timber line. Later that afternoon, a thunderstorm rushed across the area I had planned to hike. In fact, two hikers were killed by lightning elsewhere in the park during the time I would have been hiking above the timber line. Hence, an earlier lesson in humility may have saved my life.

A few weeks after returning from the Rocky Mountains, I experienced a situation where the words “I (or we) know better” were being used to justify another bad decision. A unit over which I had supervisory responsibility wanted to take two 60 mm mortar systems out of a supporting maintenance shop to practice firing drills. On the surface, this plan might not have seemed unreasonable. After all, the unit did not intend to actually fire the still unrepaired mortar systems. The plan was just to conduct practice drills with them. Yet, when I heard them say, “We know better,” to justify going against the safe practice of leaving unrepaired mortars secure in the maintenance facility, I immediately remembered my own poor judgment at Acadia National Park. I had also thought I knew better. However, in this case, the lives of Soldiers would have been put at risk. These weapons are extraordinarily dangerous when they malfunction.

Knowing Soldiers’ capacity for thinking they know better than anyone else, I also knew that if these mortars left the maintenance facility, there would have been an unacceptable risk of them being fired a few days later at the mortar range. Since the mortar crews would have access to both the safe working systems and the unsafe misfiring systems, I knew there was a good chance the faulty systems could be mixed up with the safe mortars during their pre-range firing drills. Furthermore, even if the unit kept the faulty systems well segregated, a “high-speed” Soldier might think he could fix the mortars himself and then attempt to use them at the range.

With this in mind, I immediately contacted all commanders involved in this decision and warned them of the unacceptable risk involved. I strongly advised them to keep the weapons in the maintenance facility’s care until they had been repaired. My efforts caused some of the leaders to be angry with me. However, I had already learned the lesson that when we think we know better than those who establish safe practices, we not only put ourselves at risk, but also those individuals we are charged with.

Consequently, these few angry voices had very little effect on my decision to insist on keeping the faulty mortar systems safely in the maintenance facility. In the end, I am grateful that an embarrassing, but relatively insignificant, event taught me a lesson that may have prevented a greater and much more significant tragedy from happening.

  • 1 July 2015
  • Author: Army Safety
  • Number of views: 11049
  • Comments: 0